9 May 2016

Sans-Souci – Carefree Palace of a Self-Made Monarch

The Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804) had left Haiti independent from its old colonial master, France which itself had only recently felt the convulsions of civil insurgency itself. Yet it also left the country divided in to north and south. In the north, a remarkable yet despotic man came to be known as Henry I, King of Haiti (left) and held sway for a number of years. He decreed that a palace be constructed to be the centerpiece of his power. Sans-Souci, as it was named, was to be his Versailles.

This was a palace meant to display power, wealth and prestige – a slap in the face to the old colonial overlords. It was propaganda in the form of bricks and mortar. In modern day terms, you could even call it something of a spin palace.

Although born to a freeman in neighboring Grenada, Henry Christopher was taken to Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was then known) as a slave. Although his early life is somewhat sketchy it is believed that he was a drummer boy in the French forces during the American Revolution and saw action at the Siege of Savannah in Georgia. During his time with the French forces, still fighting under an absolute monarchy, he learned a great deal about the way in which European nobility was structured, a knowledge he would use to his advantage in later life.

After his spell with the army it is thought Henry gained his freedom and returned to Haiti, working as a mason, sailor and stable hand as well as a variety of other jobs including a time as manager of a French owned plantation called Milot. When the slave uprising began in 1791 he grasped his chance and joined the struggle, becoming an officer and rising to the rank of General under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture.

Yet Henry was still some way from becoming the builder and owner of Sans-Souci. The slave revolt had seen off all interested European powers, not only the French but the Spanish and British too. Yet there was much internal strife in the newly formed country. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the new leader, quickly proclaimed himself Emperor and ruled as such until being assassinated in 1806 – only two years after the revolution.

Henry had been aware of the plot to kill the emperor but had given him no warning. For him, it was an opportunity to seize power and to force the country back to stability. After the assassination Henry was indeed elected president. Yet he held no real powers and this was something against which he could not fail to act. He, too, feared assassination.

He retreated to his power base in the north of the country and formed a separate government there. In 1811 he formed the Kingdom of Haiti in the north and had himself crowned as sovereign by the Archbishop of Milot, his old plantation stomping ground. This was where he would go on to build Sans-Souci.

Almost immediately after his coronation he ordered Sans-Souci to be built. Even in its ruined state it is remarkable to think that this enormous and grandiose center of power was built in only two years. Yet it was and in 1813 Henry opened his new palace. He was, as you might suspect having read this far, somewhat noted for his ruthlessness. No one is sure how many laborers died during its construction. There is no doubt, however, that a not insubstantial amount of human misery was involved in its construction. Its name then has a certain irony – translated from the French it means carefree.

So, Sans-Souci became, for a while at least, the Versailles of the West Indies. Its gardens were huge and a vast underground pumping system fed water to its myriad of artificial springs and waterworks. Huge feasts and dances were held there and it gained a reputation for its splendor and as a symbol of its host’s power. To establish trade, Henry invited high ranking Europeans to his palace and many noted Sans-Souci in their writings as a hugely impressive place. Yet Henry, in his attempts to demonstrate the power and ability of the free Haitian people to Europeans, underestimated their intense snobbery.

He became, with his established system of hereditary nobility of princes and dukes, a laughing stock in Europe. There, the term "Haitian nobility" became a synonym for a makeshift upper crust created by an insignificant and upstart regime. Yet it must be remembered that there are only two countries in the Americas which succeeded in escaping European colonial power before the turn of the nineteenth century. The first, of course, is the US. Haiti is the second.

Henry’s inclination towards feudalism made him increasingly unpopular among his own people and the south of the country continually agitated against his rule. In 1820 Henry, fearing a coup, shot himself through the heart with a silver bullet. Ten days after his death his nephew and successor, Jacques-Victor Henry, Prince Royal of Haiti was bayoneted to death by revolutionaries at the so-called carefree palace.

The two parts of Haiti were unified the following year. Sans-Souci stood until 1842. Then a massive earthquake struck the island and much of it was destroyed. Lacking the means to rebuild it, the Haitian government left the once spectacular palace to the forces of entropy.

The influence of Henry’s bloodline over Haiti did not end with the swift termination of his short lived dynasty and the death of his nephew. Michèle Bennett, his great-great-great-granddaughter, was the First Lady of Haiti from 1980 to 1986. She is the (now) ex-wife of Jean-Claude Baby Doc Duvalier, former President for Life of Haiti who was removed from office by a popular uprising in 1986.

Today Sans-Souci is just a shell, albeit an immense one. Yet it is a potent reminder of a time of revolutions and their immediate aftermath, an important part of the history of a still troubled country.

Additional Image Credits
First Image - Flickr User Alan B Photography
Henry as King - Wikimedia